“Who do people say the Son of Man is? … But you, who do you say that I am?”
I am told that if you count the words in the original Greek manuscript of Mark’s Gospel, the very center of the text are these questions from Jesus to the Apostles. This is not a coincidence, for all of Mark revolves around the revelation of the identity of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
Peter professes his faith: “You are the Messiah” (Mark 8:29), as does the centurion standing beneath the cross: “Truly this man was the Son of God!” (Mark 15:39). But Mark records the question not only as context for their confession, but so each believer across time would hear Jesus ask the same: “But you, who do you say that I am?”
By its very placement in the liturgical year, the season of Advent is associated with preparation for Christmas and the coming of the Word made flesh. However, Advent looks back in time to the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem not with nostalgia, a mere sentimental recollection of a past long gone. Advent is primarily about looking forward to the return of Christ at the end of history. Advent — literally “He comes” or “He is coming” — reassures us that just as surely as God kept his promise to send a Savior who came in simplicity and poverty, so surely will the Savior return in glory.
We live between those two comings, but our Advent waiting is not merely the passing of time until Jesus is present in the world again. Though we anticipate that final glorious last day of his return, Christ is decidedly not absent — indeed he tells us: “Know that I am with you always, until the end of the age” (Matthew 28:19). He comes to us, today, in word, in sacrament, in the events and people of our lives; and as he tells us, especially in the “least,” for whatever we do for them, we do for him.
Advent waiting is attentive to that subtle, hidden, obscure presence so easily overlooked by a busy world, just as it was in Bethlehem centuries ago. This hiddenness is part of the poverty the Lord assumed, not to overwhelm us with power but to invite us with faith, hope and love.
The first seven centuries of the Church were marked by the struggle to articulate an accurate answer to the question Jesus asks: “Who do you say that I am?” Is Jesus one person or two — divine and human individuals somehow “merged?” Did Jesus have a human will? Was the body of Jesus merely like a tool or a garment covering the divine nature? Was Christ really the Son of God by nature or only by some kind of adoption? These and more are the questions that fill a Christology course, and bitter divisions arose because of them.
At the end of those centuries, as Christological doctrine settled, a remarkable summary of the identity of Christ was compiled by an unknown author in the form of seven antiphons for the Church’s evening prayer (vespers) from Dec. 17-23: the O Antiphons. Most know them best through the verses of the hymn “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” though the English translation struggles with presenting the richness of the Latin original.
Weaving together texts from the Old Testament with remarkable breadth and harmony, the composer of the Os presents seven titles for the identity of Jesus, themselves outlining salvation history:
- Jesus is the Wisdom of God through whom all things were made (Sapientia);
- the Lord who appeared to Moses in the burning bush (Adonai);
- the Root of Jesse who fulfills the covenant promise that a descendant of King David would always sit upon the throne (Radix Iesse);
- the Key of David who would open the way to life that no one can close (Clavis David);
- the Rising Sun foretold by the prophets who would shine on those in darkness (Oriens);
- the King of all nations (Rex Gentium);
- God-with-us (Emmanuel).
Even skimming the richness of the O Antiphons requires a book — I wrote my thesis on this topic 33 years ago — but like Mark, the purpose of the Os is to prompt us to ask: What title would I give to Jesus? Who do I say Jesus is?
Advent reminds us that we are not waiting for something, but for Someone — the One who continues daily to ask us: “And you, who do you say that I am?”
FATHER TOM KNOBLACH is pastor of Holy Spirit, St. Anthony and St. John Cantius parishes in St. Cloud